Communication Currents

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When Good Mothers Go Bad: Exploring Mad Men’s Betty Draper In a Post(racial)feminist World

April 9, 2018
Critical and Cultural Studies

While fans of the 1950s-1960s-era television series Mad Men loved the show’s acclaimed anti-hero, Don Draper, they loved to hate his wife, Betty, who was stuck between wanting to fulfill the traditional image of a beautiful wife and mother and desperate to break out of the trappings of an upper-middle class lifestyle and a failing marriage. The authors of a newly published article in NCA’s Critical Studies in Media Communication argue that Betty’s character embraced “‘bad’ mothering as a progressive, even transgressive act that simultaneously relies on expectations for (good)mothering shaped by white privilege.”

Susan Martínez Guillem (University of New Mexico) and Christopher C. Barnes (University of Colorado Boulder) begin their analysis by noting that the figure of the “bad mother” has experienced a radical repositioning in Western society in recent years, and what once was a shameful oxymoron is now “increasingly embraced in public discourses, as well as fictional and non-fictional representations of motherhood.” Mothers are now given permission to show weakness, display anxiety, make mistakes, and break free of the “dominant cultural ideals of devotion, fulfillment, and perfection.”

Not All Mothers?

Martínez Guillem and Barnes argue that giving moms permission to not always be a “good” mother does not extend to non-white mothers. They use Mad Men’s Betty Draper to “explore the mythical figure of the ‘bad’ mom as a product of the contradictions embedded in both patriarchy and racism.” Why Betty? According to the authors, her character “enjoys a privileged position to enact characteristics coded as ‘bad’ mothering that expose wide-ranging sexist and pre-feminist cultural logics just as they leave race unmarked.”

They base their analysis upon examinations of the show, as well as reactions to it from critics and fans, whom they say embrace the bad mom trope that advances an apparently progressive postfeminist stance. However, the authors argue that the trope ultimately relies on “the erasure of the experiences of mothers of color, who are always already read along racial(izing) lines, and therefore cannot embrace ‘bad’ mothering as a form of generalized gender liberation.”

Mothering Myths

The authors emphasize that dominant representations of U.S. motherhood have “normalized whiteness through a set of naturalized truths that are based on and secure the privileges of a few.” Today’s idealized good mother is encouraged to “have it all” – a successful career and a fulfilling and devoted relationship with her children. Meanwhile, the “bad mother” is stigmatized and demonized for failing her children and society at large. Not surprisingly, the authors note, the women who are usually embodied by this latter trope are mothers in nontraditional families (poor teen mothers, drug-addicts), or either career-obsessed or stay-at-home moms who smother their kids.

This dichotomy, the authors argue, “reveal[s] a broader dynamic by which whiteness mediates femininity” and mothers of color are constructed as “inherently bad and as signifiers of broader moral and cultural failures.” Further, the modern version of good mothering means that (white) women have the “freedom to decide whether and how they want to embrace mothering,” a choice that mothers of color often don’t have, and certainly did not have in the time of Mad Men. “The disruptive potential of ‘bad mothering,’” Martínez Guillem and Barnes write, “is ultimately hindered by the fact that it is consistently performed, signified, and celebrated as resistance from a white, heterosexual, and upper-middle class location.”

Bad Betty: Victim or Victimizer?

The authors articulate Betty Draper’s character as a portrait of privilege and how it connects to her journey in the show, particularly her “simultaneous embodiment of a resistance to ideal(ized) gender roles.” Betty is both victim and victimizer, as she struggles to escape her cookie-cutter lifestyle and unfaithful husband, while employing neglectful and cruel behavior with her children, especially her daughter, Sally, and her Black maids, Carla and Viola.

Given Betty’s position of privilege, the authors believe that some of the feminist readings of the show that embrace her as “the bad mother as anti-hero” are incomplete and potentially misleading. Betty enjoys the perks of travel, wealth, and romance, even while she fights against these trappings and desires personal freedom. Yet Carla and Viola are not permitted the freedom to tend to their own families, because they are so busy trying to care for Betty’s, and for Betty herself. Carla never has any potential to be a “good” mother, the authors assert, because “the Draper family exploits her mothering abilities, reinforcing the economic dynamic by which the women of color do the work and white women and their kids enjoy the benefits.”

Ultimately, the authors argue that “bad” mothering—and by extension, postfeminism--is disjoined from racial justice because it doesn’t acknowledge the “ideological and material constraints that limit Black women’s ability to mother.” Therefore, it is only (white) women of privilege who have the freedom to choose to be “deficient” mothers. How do we begin to undo this dynamic? Martínez Guillem and Barnes argue that we need to “constantly and critically expose the white consciousness that lies at the core of postfeminist concerns.”

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Martínez Guillem, Susana, and Barnes, Christopher C. (2018). “‘Am I a good [white] mother?’ Mad men, bad mothers, and post(racial)feminism.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. doi: 10.1080/15295036.2017.1416419

About the author (s)

Susana Martínez Guillem

University of New Mexico

Assistant Professor

Christopher C. Barnes

University of Colorado Boulder

Ph.D. Student